Friday, October 5, 2007

Culturally Based Sustainability

The other day I heard a man who identified himself as a Native Hawaiian call in to KKCR and say he wasn’t too keen about folks moving to Kauai, even if they claim to love the land. “I think that’s the real invasive species: people,” he said. “I don’t trust a lot of the environmentalists because their agenda is not native.”

The caller went on to say that kanaka maoli look at the natural world as a source of food and sustenance, and since they use it often, they malama — care for — its resources. Environmentalists, on the other hand, see nature as something pretty to look at that shouldn’t be touched.

His sentiment is one I’ve heard expressed fairly often, and it would be wise for Kauai’s environmental community to take it into account, especially in discussions about sustainability. It seems we often forget that Hawaii’s indigenous people, who lived in that manner for centuries, have valuable models and tools to offer us.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Ramsay Taum about traditional Hawaiian cultural practices and values that can serve as models for 21st Century sustainability. The article, which I share below, was published in the Honolulu Weekly.


As modern Hawaii residents ponder how to achieve sustainability, they needn’t search far for guidance.

“All we have to do is look to our ancestors,” says Ramsay Taum, who founded the Life Enhancement Institute and lectures and teaches on ways to incorporate Hawaiian cultural concepts into today’s society.

“One common misconception, however, is that adopting culturally-based, traditional systems entails the need to “go back someplace,” says Taum, who is also director of external relations and community partnerships for the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management and operations director for Hawaii Nature Center.

Instead, he sees it as “bringing forward those principles and practices our ancestors utilized and employed. It may mean a hybrid of low-tech and high-tech opportunities.”

Pre-contact kanaka maoli lived in harmony with their environment and achieved fuel- and food-sufficiency, feeding a population now estimated at 800,000, he says. They did it by embracing certain values and practices, and the ahupuaa concept was a cornerstone.

In days of old, the islands were divided into sections that ran from the mountains to the sea. Each ahupuaa had resources, and residents traded with others to get what they needed in a decentralized, family-based cooperative approach.

The state has adopted that concept as the framework for discussing its 2050 sustainability plan, a move Taum considers promising — and indicative of a larger trend. “I think there are a number of people who are accepting that model. They’re willing to do what others have already done, to learn from what they did and how they did it, and accept the over-arching values that go with it.”

Chief among them is aloha. “Although it’s overused, fundamentally aloha really acknowledges sustainability, because it’s about reciprocity. It’s about giving and receiving.”

While an ahupuaa is usually defined in topographical terms, “the system of ahupuaa is not just a physical place. It necessitated balancing the behavior of people as well as management practices.”

This was done through the concepts of aloha aina — approaching that which feeds you with an awareness of reciprocity — and malama aina —caring for that resource and exercising thoughtful stewardship.

“That’s not to say it’s an anti-development mentality, but a balanced approach. The ahupuaa was an engineered environment, but in manipulating the earth, Hawaiians found a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship.”

In achieving that balance, one also has to consider how to maintain the authenticity of a place and quality of life, he says, “and that requires a great deal of respect. It leads back to aloha and on to kuleana, which means not just responsibility, but stewardship.

“If you want to enjoy certain privileges in Hawaii, such as build a successful business, you have a responsibility to give back and not just take out. If you’re acting from a place of aloha aina, you would naturally do that.”

Taum sees giving back as more than just paying taxes, “because most taxes to do not go back into the natural and human resources of capital.”

Other changes are needed, too, he says, such as expanding the concept of ohana beyond the nuclear family to the workforce, and creating “a new index for success” that moves away from the western definition of prosperity as individual profit.

Under a traditional Hawaiian model, “it’s not so much what I’ve gotten personally, but what we’ve done collectively. Each of us is responsible for the success of the others. There’s a consciousness or awareness you are part of the system and you spend your time doing your part. And if you do that, then you’re pono. Prosperity would be a measurement of how pono someone is.”

Those who aspire to live in a way that is pono “are doing precisely the right thing at the right time, and that changes, so you need to be responsive and work with it, or else you get stuck.”

Through it all, the individual is motivated by an awareness that “my behavior is affecting others more than just myself, and that comes down to kuleana,” he adds.

“I don’t think it’s possible to force people into being that way, but we do need to look at policies and principles that reward people for being that way.”

Taum is “cautiously optimistic” that the Islands are moving toward a culturally-based model of sustainability. “The yellow light is on only because I don’t think there are enough people who understand the system, even in the Hawaiian community, or if they do, they aren’t being consulted.”

He also acknowledges that “we have a long way to go to learn how to operationalize these principles in contemporary times.”

Still, he says, “we have to believe we have the ability to make that happen, and that we do have a choice. If we can’t do this in Hawaii, where can we do it? We might go so far as to suggest Hawaii is the canary in the cavern. As Hawaii goes, the world goes, too.”


Anonymous said...

What a great post! Well-meaning white environmentalists need to face the reality that not only Hawai'ian practice, but justice and reparations for Hawai'ians needs to be central to any sustainability discussion in Hawai'i. This is uncomfortable, but it has to be considered.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I recently attended a public hearing. The state government wrote a draft plan with goals and indicators for the next 42 years up and including the year 2050.

There were about 60 people in attendance. We listened to several government speakers for about an hour or so and then some of us were directed to sit in assigned groups. There were five groups in all. Each group averaged 3 men 3 women 1 senior 2 students one government worker and a group leader called a ‘trained facilitator’.

We were explained the rules everyone said something which was written on huge sheets of paper in different color markers. When a sheet was full of writing it was detached from the stack and displayed on the wall around the group area. An announcement was made to take a break. There was a table with free snacks and water. The second announcement informed us that the break was over and finally a third broadcast informed us to stack some chairs and go home.

The morning newspaper had a headline page one story which described the public hearing.

RobertWood said...

Excellent post Joan!

Thank you.